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Working as a Team When You're Not Together

By: Roger Schwarz

These days, people often work on teams whose members are out of one another’s sight. Whether down the hall or on the other side of the world, this means they constantly have to deal with talking about absent teammates, addressing disagreements they have with each other and preventing end runs around each other.

Talking About Teammates Who Aren’t Present

I was working with a leadership team in which members talked about each other behind each other's backs. They acknowledged this habit was eroding trust and hindering the team’s efforts to execute its organizational strategy. At one point, a team member suggested that they should stop talking this behavior. I disagreed. I suggested they continue to talk. In fact, I suggested that they were better served by talking about each other, whether a person was there or not, but they needed to change the way they talked.

The problem with talking about absent teammates is that the people you’re talking to don’t get to hear the views of the person you’re talking about. Instead, they hear only your views on the person—and sometimes those views are negative. If you have issues with an absent person, this may seem an easy way to build your case with the people you’re talking to, but it has unintended consequences. It erodes your relationship with the person you are talking about. It sends a message to others that this behavior is acceptable, and it leaves the people you’re talking to wondering what you say about them when they aren’t present. Here are guidelines you can use when talking about someone who isn’t present:

Accurately represent the views of the person you disagree with.  If you want to be a leader who brings team members together rather than creates divisiveness, tell the people you’re talking with what the other person’s views are. For example, after you have explained why you think it’s important to speed up the product launch date, you might say, “Kay sees it differently. She wants to wait until Q3 to launch.”

Remember that to represent Kay’s views to others, you first have to talk with her directly. If you find yourself thinking, “I don’t understand what her problem is,” do some homework. Ask Kay not only what her view is, but how she came to that point of view. If you can’t represent Kay’s reasoning to others, then you probably can’t fairly represent her views either.

Explain the source of your disagreement. It’s even more helpful if you describe the reason behind your different views. For example, you might say, “Kay and I have different assumptions about the timing of the launch and how it will affect our new products. She thinks if we speed up the launch date, we’ll confuse customers with the products we launched last quarter. I think we’ll actually speed up our new product line identity.” Again, if you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know why she disagrees with me,” do some more homework. Talk with Kay.

Explain the person’s views without making it an attack.  Telling people that Kay doesn’t understand the business, is generally clueless or is out to make your part of the organization look bad only reinforces organizational silos. It’s fine to say that you disagree and why you disagree, but don’t do so by questioning her motives or simply dismissing her as clueless.

Give yourself the “Would They Consider It Fair?” test. You know you’ve done a good job of talking about Kay if, having heard what you said about her, she can say, “You’ve represented me accurately.” So next time you’re about to talk about someone you disagree with, first try this thought experiment. Listen to what you plan to say, and ask yourself, “If the person heard what I am about to say, would she say I have represented her fairly?” If your answer is yes, you’re leading by building better relationships. If the answer is no, determine what you need to change to pass the test.

Prevent End Runs. As team leader, you may be contributing unknowingly to your team members’ acting unilaterally and making end runs around their teammates. If Lance comes to you and says, “I’ve got a problem with Sam,” and you start to solve it, you’ve allowed Lance to shift the accountability for this problem from Sam and him to you. Even worse than solving the problem for Lance is agreeing to talk to Sam yourself. That completely shifts the accountability from Lance to you. Meanwhile, you don’t have all the relevant information that Lance does, so you won’t be able to answer Sam’s questions. As a result, neither of you will be able to craft a solution based on informed choice.

Your first comment to Lance should be, “Have you talked with Sam about the fact that you’ve got a problem with him?” If the answer is no, your second question should be, “What’s led you not to talk with him about it?”

It’s important to tell Lance that you see your role as helping him develop the ability to work out these issues with other team members, not as working them out for him. It’s fine to coach Lance on how he can productively talk to and work with Sam. It’s even reasonable for you to meet with Lance and Sam together and help them resolve their problem. But if you take on the role of problem solver for team members, your reward will be this: team members will give you more opportunities to solve their problems. That’s a prescription for failing to develop team members’ abilities and for reducing the time you have to focus on other priorities.

Excerpted, with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results by Roger Schwarz. Copyright 2013.

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About the Author(s)

Roger Schwarz is a recognized thought leader in Team Leadership and improving Team Effectiveness. He is a sought after advisor to global companies, federal government agencies, and international nonprofit organizations. He is the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams and the bestselling The Skilled Facilitator. Schwarz is President and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates.